Lessons from the Murdoch affair

Camilla Toulmin's picture
Insight by 
Camilla Toulmin
28 July 2011

For the past two weeks, UK newspapers have charted the decline and fall of the Murdoch media empire, News Corp. It’s a story of a hugely powerful company, led by a dynasty, that exerted great influence over governments across the world. For many years, Rupert Murdoch has had easy access to 10 Downing Street, with politicians great and small seeking his approval, hoping that his media group will come out in favour of their particular party. With two police investigations underway and the abandonment of plans to acquire a yet larger share of the UK media, it looks as though Murdoch’s powerful grip on UK politics has finally been broken.

[flickr-photo:id=2486410594, class=right, size=m, caption=Lake Magadi in Kenya's Rift Valley by Stig Nygaard]

This real life drama provides valuable lessons for IIED’s work to create a greener, fairer world. We have long fought for greater democracy and equity in decision-making policy and practice. The Murdoch saga raises three key points that remind us of the need within those efforts to think carefully about the ramifications of concentrated power, the lack of accountability from politicians and business to most citizens, and the importance of integrity and courage to stand up for what we believe in.

First, concentration brings both power and risks. Natural ecosystems are more resilient when they have a large number of different species, rather than being concentrated on a few large animals. Three years ago, we saw that the same is true of business when the collapse of major banks highlighted the vulnerability of our financial systems to bad practice in a few large companies. The monumental size of these banks left government little choice but to step in and rescue them, taking money from tax payers to plug the holes in our banking system.

Given that the public gave such a large subsidy to bail out the private sector, you might have expected the government to insist on breaking up big banks into smaller units and increase the resilience of our financial system. But politicians have been curiously unwilling to do so. Banks continue to exert great influence on government, threatening to leave the country if attempts are made either to break them up, or to touch the huge bonus payments bankers award themselves each year. Concentration is bad for resilience, it brings undue influence and it leads to excessive inequality.

Second, the integrity of our politicians really matters. Often, it seems that governments only listen to the rich and powerful, with politicians most interested in climbing the greasy pole of career advancement. In the Murdoch case, two members of parliament have withstood threats and pushed to bring News Corp to account. It takes real courage to pursue a figure like Rupert Murdoch over the time needed to uncover wrong doing. We need politicians who are willing to take such risks.

Third, we need better means to hold companies to account. Murdoch has finally been brought down because it became impossible to ignore the body of evidence showing that the stories in his newspapers relied on illegal activity such as tapping telephones and hacking into people’s voicemail. These activities had allowed the company to acquire secret information about government members and others — information that politicians would not want to see splashed on newspaper front pages. While the police had been reluctant to prosecute, more and more people insisted that there was a case to answer. But we should not have to wait for evidence of criminal activity before companies are brought to book. Politicians and businesses must be accountable for the decisions and actions that they take.

If we are to construct a greener, fairer society, we need brave politicians and people to hold governments and corporations to account. We need a break-up of concentrated business. And we need to disentangle politics and money. The events of the past few weeks show that progress, though slow, can be made to improve democracy and equity and shift our society onto a more sustainable pathway.